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First look: Olive & Lamb tastes like the Mediterranean cruise you can't afford

Olive & Lamb's falafel is pretty much begging you to bite into it so you can see its gorgeous green, herby center.

Olive & Lamb's falafel is pretty much begging you to bite into it so you can see its gorgeous green, herby center.

It's not every restaurant you hear the title and think "Hell yeah, I wanna eat both things in the name of that restaurant."

Think Spoon & Stable, or (closing-soon!) Sporty's Pub & Grill, or, come to think of it, Dave & Buster's. You don't wanna eat Buster, do you? 

This should-you-eat-the-name exercise goes over much better at Olive & Lamb, newly opened on the corner of Lowry and University in northeast Minneapolis. The Mediterranean joint is a refreshing replacement for the space formerly occupied by Marina Grill & Deli, which functioned as something of a catch-all: lamb, hummus, kebabs, sure, but also tuna melts, cheeseburgers, and a Reuben.

Olive & Lamb -- comfortable going by "O & L,"  according to signage on the building -- has a shorter menu, and is more strictly and consciously Mediterranean. It's also brighter, more modern, and more ambitious.

One more thing: It's delicious.

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Because you probably will as a diner, let's start with that falafel, a gloriously fried crusty marvel that bursts open to reveal a pistachio-colored center. (Look closely, and you'll notice this bad boy is somehow even colorful on the outside.) You should dip it in the equally breezy yogurt sauce, but it's fluffy enough to get by on its own.

Some fried foods come with a dose of guilt. This one tastes like you're huffing an herb garden. Get two orders.

Now let's talk about the aforementioned lamb, the "L" in this restaurant's title. The slow-spinning shawarma rig is a signature of any Mediterranean spot, though not all of them know how to keep the meat crispy without drying it out.

A lamb burger -- gyro meat piled atop a beef patty -- suggests these folks certainly know their way around a rotisserie, and the perfectly juicy medium rare cowstuff underneath speaks well of the grill. The bun was nice and squishy without being a pushover; waffle-cut sweet potato fries on the side didn't have a lot going on. (In hindsight, we should've inquired about sauce options.) 

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Also impressive on the meat front was a blended combination kebab of beef and lamb, a perfectly spiced tubular animal-based food with more soul than a hot dog and more delicate texture than a sausage. Tomato and jalapeno accompaniments had been expertly scorched in parts, and basmati rice was just right, neither sticky nor stick-like. This dish rules.

As for other staples of spots like this, the tabbouleh was high on lemon and parsley -- one diner found it bright to the point of near-obnoxious -- making it more of a palate cleanser than a meal, and a creamy Persian chicken salad felt like it needed something to make it interesting. 

Turns out it did: warm, wine-colored olives added a smooth depth to each bite they made it into. Our wish is that these titular olives would've shown up more often. Or that we would've found an unopened jar behind the restaurant.

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A baklava dessert was simple and traditional, meaning we wanted to eat an entire baking sheet, each bite a sweet union of flaky dough, honey, and nuttiness. (Let your healthy friend opt for Greek yogurt and the one with a hardcore sweet tooth roll for Persian ice cream.) 

A sign broadcasting that beer and wine are "coming soon" means Olive & Lamb is, indeed, quite different from its predecessor Marina. That was a deli counter. This is a restaurant, and the people working there seem overjoyed to be serving this stuff up. And if they're that happy, just imagine how you'll feel.

Olive & Lamb
2424 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-353-5196